The race elephant lurking in the DA’s ‘laboratory’

It’s not something the leaders in the Democratic Alliance want to discuss in public, but Tony Leon’s tone-deaf remarks terming Mmusi Maimane’s tenure a failed experiment has brought to the fore resentment around race in the party.

At least six black senior DA leaders holding senior positions in parliament and provincial legislatures in several provinces have said they have resorted to being silent following the “old guard’s” removal of Maimane as the organisation’s leader. 

Many feel that there is disparity in how black and white leaders are treated within the party and Leon’s comments have only exacerbated the simmering racial tensions internally. 

‘Mmusi must take responsibility’

However, some provincial leaders don’t believe that the tensions are one-sided, going as far as to blame Maimane for the vitriol spewed at him as he was warned not to become too close to the DA’s alleged “white-boys’ club”. 

“Mmusi needs to take responsibility for his own demise as well as the silencing of black voices because he knew he was being used as an experiment. That was an experiment Mmusi was willing to be part of. So, in essence, Tony Leon was correct,” said one black leader, who asked to remain anonymous. 


But Maimane would not concede to the Mail & Guardian that he was allegedly naive to trust that his rapid rise was based solely on merit. 

“I think it’s dangerous to say that it is simply a matter of black versus white in the DA, as is it dangerous to infer the same in South African society more broadly. Rather, it is a tension between those who believe black and white people can work together on an equal footing towards a common future, and those who implicitly believe black people must assimilate or become fronts and experiments in an attempt to maintain the status quo and not ‘rock the boat’ too much. That is what is at play in the DA, like in many other sectors of our society, including corporate South Africa,” Maimane said. 

He refuted assertions that his closeness to conservative members of the DA has now left remaining black leaders in limbo and silenced as the party seemingly shifts further to the right. 

‘Leon’s comments are not the first’

Leon’s comments, though, are not in isolation. Back in May 2014 when starry-eyed Lindiwe Mazibuko left the party, Helen Zille reportedly said she had “made” her, following the former Western Cape premier supporting Mazibuko to be parliamentary leader in 2011 when the latter was only 31 years old.

Zille would later write in her book Not Without a Fight that she had told Mazibuko that it was early for her to challenge Athol Trollip, a veteran politician, for the parliamentary position.

A few years later, former City of Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba also became disillusioned with the party. Zille called Mashaba’s mayoral reign not “just an accident, it turned out to be a car crash”.

Former and current party leaders who spoke to the Mail & Guardian see this trend as telling of how the party treats and views black leaders. 

A senior party leader complained that the way black leaders have been dealt with compared to their white counterparts was unfair.

“The fact that Leon is being handled the way he is shows the disparity. It’s very telling from my point of view how issues are being dealt with and bringing into question who is important.”

The source said the biggest mistake that the black leaders have made was to stay silent on blatant racism, but leader John Steenhuisen’s resounding mandate made it difficult to challenge much in the party at this point.

The racial shifts over the years 

John Moodey, the party’s former Gauteng leader who defected to Mashaba’s ActionSA, said that within the party, a younger black guard has found their ideas suppressed and felt their positions were favours they owed in return for sticking to a tired script.

“It was almost that feeling of ‘you must be grateful for the opportunity that you have, to serve in the position you are serving in’. That is fairly prevalent in the DA,” he said.

“I had a mission to take Gauteng in 2019. We lost the vision of bringing the ANC below 50% as a result of internal battles and scuffling, which the voters didn’t like,” he said.

Moodey said while he felt there was a racial divide in the party when he joined the DA in the later parts of Tony Leon’s leadership, this changed when Helen Zille took over. 

More black members ascended to positions of power and were given the space to enact change. But Moodey said Zille herself had changed and was no longer the same person he met two decades ago.

“Tony Leon’s comments smack of superiority… The shift in the DA happened a year or so before Mmusi left. 

“It was a shift of races. There was this thing: they wanted to take back their party. This constant referral to those of us of colour, that we are ANC-lite. We would ask ourselves what makes you more of a liberal than I am? Is it because I am African?” he said.

The tension harks back to the party’s dichotomy on dealing with racial redress.

It led to the bitter fallout between Zille and Mazibuko, the DA’s first black parliamentary leader, and the latter’s departure from politics. Like Mazibuko, Maimane was Zille’s protege and how both left created an impression, reinforced by Leon’s words, that black leaders remain expendable.

Moodey, like Maimane, found it hard to forgive Zille’s damaging tweets on colonialism and apartheid, and he believed racism had raised its head in some quarters of the party before he quit in September last year.

The party has yet to deliver a ruling on Zille’s tweets, though its federal legal commission has completed its investigation and begun hearings with her on the matter.

(John McCann/M&G)

Manufactured outrage nauseating Steenhuisen

Steenhuisen has refused to comment on Leon’s remarks, saying expecting him to do so would be akin to asking President Cyril Ramaphosa to react to every utterance of Jacob Zuma.

“I don’t feel it necessary to comment on the views of private citizens whether they are former leaders or not. Mr Leon holds no official position in the DA,” he said, adding that he found the manufactured outrage around it “nauseating”.

However, a senior MP begrudged Leon, as a former leader well aware of the fault lines in the party, for tripping over them.

“Look, a lot of people are pissed off and with reason,” the person said.

“Any sensitive and sensible person would have been a lot more circumspect.”

Another prominent DA leader was trenchant. She said it was telling that senior members who expressed problematic or racist attitudes were not taken to task and were apparently “tolerated for their prejudice. It also makes it ok for other people to think that their prejudicial views are something that we are still negotiating instead of condemning. 

“Even the fact that John has not said anything about Leon comments, nor does he say anything ever unless it affects white people – like in the case of Stellenbosch University – just shows that even at the top, you are not sure that the leader you have is not a racist.”

“How can you not feel those undertones? I have had direct racism.” 

The DA members said that colleagues had wanted to label many of the black senior members as ANC-lite or African nationalist.

“All of those are trying to make us seem like we are less than, and we can be lumped with the ANC. When we are together, some people just assume we are a black caucus. White people in the party invented even that term. It was never black people that called themselves that.”

Another party source said they believe the best way is to be silent and let the leadership do its work and carry out the mandate they were given in the previous congress.

“It’s very difficult to say that this is not the direction that should be taken when you are reminded that there is an 80% mandate. So I would like to allow the elected leaders to lead us through the local government elections and for us to see whether that mandate they were given translates to votes.”

Leon has since explained his remarks by saying he was referring to Maimane’s relative inexperience when he was handed control of the party. Mazibuko declined to comment on the matter.

This furore comes when the party tries to claw back support it lost to the political spectrum’s right and fearing further losses in this year’s local government elections.

It has left Steenhuisen little elbow room as he tries not to alienate the DA’s traditional voters or donors further, many of whom carry a torch for the likes of Zille and Leon.

At its policy conference last year, the DA broke with the thinking of the Mazibuko era on race as a proxy for inequality.

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Lizeka Tandwa
Lizeka Tandwa
Lizeka Tandwa is a political journalist with a keen interest in local government.
Khaya Koko
Khaya Koko is a journalist with a penchant for reading through legal documents braving the ravages of cold court benches to expose the crooked. He writes about social justice and human-interest stories. Most importantly, he is a card-carrying member of the Mighty Orlando Pirates.

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